This post contains spoilers!
Today is International Animation Day, and so I thought it would be nice to talk about one of my favourite animated movies. The Iron Giant, released in 1999 and starring Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr and Vin Diesel, is the story of a lonely child, Hogarth Hughes, who encounters and befriends a giant robot from space. You’d think that would be enough, being an adaptation of Ted Hughes’ book The Iron Man, but there’s something else that makes the film dear to me. You see, The Iron Giant is the best Superman film ever made.
At one point in the film, Hogarth is showing the Giant a pile of magazines when they come across a comic featuring an evil robot, Atomo. The Giant instinctively relates to the cover – over the course of the film it’s revealed that he’s a heavily armed war machine – but Hogarth’s having none of this – he sees the Giant as being more like another comic book character:
Oh, here. This is Superman. He’s a lot like you. Crash-landed on Earth, didn’t know what he was doing… but he only uses his powers for good, never for evil. Remember that.
Hogarth’s being naive, of course – the military antagonists hunting the Giant probably have a clearer grasp of the situation, as he was obviously sent to Earth on a mission of conquest. Naivety triumphs over expedience though; although the Giant reacts to perceived threats by, well, blowing them up, his relationship with Hogarth helps him to transcend his programming:
DEAN: He’s a piece of hardware, Hogarth. Why do you think the army was here? He’s a weapon, a big…big gun that walks.
THE GIANT: I… I not gun.
You can’t help but have sympathy for the guy – we’ve got a tendency to categorise each other by what we do for a living, or where we come from. Often that’s not meant to be malicious or exclusionary but it creates a straight-jacket all the same, trapping us within the expectations and perceptions of others. There are still jobs in which women are seen as anomalies; when Obama became president, people wanted to see his birth certificate. Prejudice become handcuffs we slap on the dreams and aspirations of other people. Heck, this is more widespread than we’d imagine – how many rock stars were told to get a job in a bank because of the limited career opportunities for musicians?
Anyway, the movie takes its inevitable course; the military are called in and, because the military in these stories are always misguided and foolish, a nuclear missile is launched at the town. This is 1957, the height of the Cold War, and atomic destruction is an ever-present spectre. And yet there is hope, because the Giant has s decision to make:
HOGARTH (IN FLASHBACK): You are who you choose to be.
THE GIANT: Superman.
With that, the Giant flies to intercept the missile, saving the town but being destroyed in the process, and I’ll openly admit that I cried. One of the themes of Superman over the years is that it’s not really about the powers, it’s the heart and soul behind them, and that’s always been a powerful idea to me. And so maybe it was the animation, maybe it was the evocation of all those Superman comics I’ve read over the years, but The Iron Giant hit me in an emotional way that few movies manage.
(And yes, I’m aware that it’s a very similar twist to Terminator 2. I found it moving then as well.)
Because maybe we all carry around an element of fear – that we’re not good enough, that we’ll never really achieve much, that we lack purpose or, worst case scenario, that we’re a gun and that’s all we’ll ever be. It’s not true. Grace and change are possible. You don’t have to be Atomo; you can be Superman. You just have to make that choice, and act like it’s true.